Congratulations to our 2018 Renoviso Home Improvement Scholarship winner – Evan Mizerak of Brown University.

The prompt for the competition was: “If you were a homeowner, what’s the one home improvement project you’d choose to complete and why?”

Essays were judged based on content, style, and creativity. Evan’s essay was selected among close to 1000 applicants to win the $2000 prize. Congrats again to Evan!

*Didn’t get a chance to apply this year? Be sure to check in to our scholarships page soon when we launch 2019’s contest.

The full text of the winning essay is below:

WHEN NATURE HATES HOLDEN Or: How I Would Use Sunlight to Revolutionize the Energy Efficiency of My Home

December 11th, 2008 was the first morning that I can remember waking up to complete silence. Typically, my house is abuzz in the morning, as my mother and father both rise early for work and often have the television on as they shower and prepare for the day ahead. These noises, catalyzed by my father’s electronic alarm clock, were commonplace on every morning except for that fateful Thursday. I rolled over in bed wordlessly only to peer at a malfunctioning bedside digital clock whose face was blank.

While I had slept the night before, the infamous Ice Storm of 2008 ravaged my home town of Holden, Massachusetts and most of the Northeast. Before long, the house grew bitterly cold, and my breath was visible at the kitchen table. Our town traded the once-omnipresent hum of electrical appliances for a cacophony of tree branches snapping like gunfire as generators and chainsaws worked to restore some semblance of normalcy to the region. Yes, Mother Nature is always at perhaps her most sporadic in Central Massachusetts; we ended up attending school on Saturdays for nearly a month and waited anxiously as our pipes stood precariously close to freezing.

Within four months, I was sprawled across my living room sofa with a fan blowing in my face, contending with 97-degree heat and a drought that had weather forecasters and agricultural specialists alike confused.

As you may have surmised, weather in Massachusetts is fickle, and the best home improvement projects in the Bay State are those that accommodate its unpredictable shifts in temperature, humidity, and precipitation. This means that a significant renovation should be undertaken with the goal of accommodating the possibility of not only chilly winters in need of heating efficiency, but also oppressive summers that necessitate cooling. Of course, any change to a house should also align with its location and style – all of this while, optimally, adding value.

The project that fits the bill in essentially all of these respects is one that emphasizes passive solar technology. Passive solar design utilizes a combination of the sun’s warmth, its location relative to a given home, and robust insulation to produce an energy-efficient building that makes extreme seasonal changes manageable in both the summer and winter. That said, it is not without its intrinsic complexities: unlike simply switching out windows, passive solar design is a multifaceted endeavor that also entails subtle changes from house to house. The design is based upon a concept called direct gain as well as thermal storage, both of which are optimized based upon the slope of the sun’s path.1 If orchestrated correctly, a passive solar setup could save tremendous amounts of money for any home-owning family, including my own.

My house sits atop a mountainous driveway on a small side street in Holden and conveniently, most of its windows face the south. In the summertime, the sunlight travels a markedly higher path than it does in the winter, as can be observed in the diagram below.

My proposed renovation would include a roof structured with a strategic overhang that blocks direct sunlight from entering the home during the summertime, thus lowering the oppressive heat conditions inside and erasing the need to purchase expensive air conditioning machines. However, the course of the sun during the winter would enable it to pass through the windows, which would be decently glazed to maximize solar gain. This setup, coupled with the presence of a thermal mass in floors and walls, provides an opportunity for the sun’s energy to be collected and stored.3 Examples of thermal masses include dense materials like concrete, stone, brick, or ceramic tile. Each of these has the capacity to not only store heat, but also release and distribute stored heat energy throughout the home during the evening and night. As a result, the bitter wintertime cold in Holden can be at least partially mitigated by taking advantage of all solar energy that comes in contact with my home and disseminating it throughout multiple rooms. Furthermore, massive temperature fluctuations will be nonexistent.

Of course, the entire scheme is moot if my renovation does not include the assurance of top-notch insulation. Foam, cellulose and fiberglass are three optimal types of insulation material that can be used within a house to ensure that warm areas stay warm and cool areas stay cool. Insulation allows the heat collected by thermal masses to be utilized efficiently, regardless of season. This overarching concept of a strategically-designed home doing its own storing and circulating of solar energy is referred to as direct gain passive solar. It is the more cost-effective alternative to indirect gain, which conversely uses a mechanism referred to as a Trombe wall on the winter sun side of a glazed window. I would also prioritize ventilation in my renovation, which is equally important, as it adds to heat distribution and can help cultivate a low-cost thermosiphon. Experts have found that such a feature is most useful if it takes up about 5% of a home’s glazing area.4

In summary, when completed, my renovation will have instituted a number of major changes, including the insertion of a controlled overhang to prevent summer sunlight, glazed windows to enable the passage of sun during the winter, thermal masses to absorb and distribute heat throughout the day, and insulation to ensure that these extensive efforts at temperature control do not go to waste. Not only does my plan present a cost-efficient alternative to clunky mechanical devices, but it reduces human footprint. It makes the truly unique weather in Holden tolerable whether a home is in the midst of the Ice Storm of 2008 or the scalding summer that followed closely in its wake. It would accommodate the climate of any town that routinely draws the ire of Mother Nature, even one that was crazy enough to have school on Saturdays.

REFERENCES

  1. Lea, Keya. “Passive Solar Overview.” GreenPassiveSolar.com, 2018, https://greenpassivesolar.com/passive-solar/.
  2. Struve, Kurt. “Passive Solar Heating Design.” KurtStruve.com, 2018, http://www.kurtstruve.com/portfolio/passive-solar-heating/.
  3. “Thermal Mass.” GreenSpec.co.uk, 2018, http://www.greenspec.co.uk/building-design/thermal-mass/
  4. U.S. Department of Energy. “Passive Solar Design Strategies: Guidelines for Home Building.” NREL.gov, 2018, https://www.nrel.gov/docs/legosti/old/17126.pdf.